New breed of sommeliers give wine a fresh flavour

Esther Han
Successful sommeliers: Samantha Payne of China Lane, Caitlyn Rees of The Wine Library,  Rebecca Lines of Bar H and Pip ...
Successful sommeliers: Samantha Payne of China Lane, Caitlyn Rees of The Wine Library, Rebecca Lines of Bar H and Pip Whitting of the Merivale restaurant. Photo: Marco Del Grande

A wine list is an unusual choice for bedtime reading, but 23-year-old Julia Sewell has perused Rockpool Bar and Grill's 156-page wine list every night for the past month, ensuring her knowledge of wine remains as sharp as her palate.

Ms Sewell is the latest addition to the restaurant's venerable wine team led by Michael Engelmann, one of only two master sommeliers in the country, with access to an old bank vault filled with $6 million worth of highly prized drops.

Ms Sewell, who topped Australia's Court of Master Sommeliers program in April, symbolises a growing breed of young female sommeliers in Sydney, cracking the last bastion of masculinity in the wine world.

Cellar dweller: Julia Sewell in Rockpool Bar and Grill's wine vault.
Cellar dweller: Julia Sewell in Rockpool Bar and Grill's wine vault. Photo: Marco Del Grande

''I've tasted some really exciting wines. On my second shift there was a bottle of 1985 Sassicaia [from Tuscany], the vintage that made it famous. We also opened a wine from 1937, which was incredible because it's like consuming history,'' she said.

Mr Engelmann said the Rockpool team always had at least one woman.

''It's always been a man's business, but when it's just men it can be intimidating,'' he said. ''There are good women sommeliers today and they can be great tasters, if not better tasters, and they show sensitivity when they're talking and describing wine.''

Two months ago Caitlyn Rees, at 24, was appointed head sommelier at The Wine Library in Woollahra, having fine-tuned her taste buds at Love, Tilly Devine, since 2010. She formed Sydney's first Women's Wine Society in September last year, which grew from five to 35 members within a year.

She relishes the presence of industry veterans such as Lara Caraturo, formerly of Pilu at Freshwater, and Gabrielle Webster, who owns Riley Street Cafe and Wine in Surry Hills.

''People are surprised I'm only 24, but what's different now is the information available through the internet. I have the skills, I'm learning so much,'' she said.

Pip Whitting, a sommelier with the Merivale restaurant group, including Uccello and the Ivy, said the days of diners reacting with ''gasp, shock, horror'' at being assisted by a female sommelier were long gone.

''They used to say 'can I speak with the sommelier - you're not the sommelier,' '' she said. ''Now they're delighted and surprised when they do find out.''

But at Bar H next to The Woods in the Four Seasons Hotel, owner Rebecca Lines still encounters ''small pockets'' of business types who struggle to put their trust in a female sommelier.

She pinned the growing number of female sommeliers and the prevalence of the job in both top and mid-tier eateries as symptomatic of the casualisation of dining.

''Females can now do this job and do it in a relaxed manner, rather than in a stiff restaurant. There's a lot more room for personality in the role,'' she said.

Samantha Payne, head sommelier of China Lane, writes and maintains wine lists that reflect the restaurant's philosophy. The 27-year-old also writes for prestigious wine titles.

''I'm writing an article about soil, as it's the foundations of the vines,'' she said. ''So I'm trying to go back to that deep level.''

Pick of the bunch

Julia Sewell’s top wine recommendations:

2012 Fairbank Ancestrale Rosé (sparkling) $30. Bendigo. Goes with everything. Can take this from oysters to lamb to fruit salad.

2010 Matosevic Malvazija Istarska Alba $25. Istria, Croatia. Fine, perfumed, salty. Excellent with seafood.

2012 Didi Giallo $42. Adelaide Hills. If you can get your hands on it. Sauvignon blanc, but unique.

2011 Frank Cornelissen Rosso del Contadino $30 approx. Etna, Sicily. Super interesting producer, with a somewhat controversial style. Great summer wine.